Recently, my students were working on an assignment for writing in which they had to write a play. Most of the students I work with wanted to write a musical, because it’s what they were familiar with. Mind you, this wasn’t going to be performed, it was merely meant to show the students’ abilities to compose a written narrative. When I first heard about my students’ reaction to this assignment, I knew that I should try and get in contact with Andrew Lippa, whose work I’ve always appreciated. I grew up listening to “My New Philosophy” on repeat, and finding his work wherever I could. If he was a part of a show, my family and I were there. Most recently, this occurred with I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk, which I had the pleasure of discussing with him. We got to talk about his writing process, a lifelong love of the arts, and acceptance. Enjoy!
Andrew Lippa: You know, a lot of people don’t know this, but I was the beneficiary of a fantastic speech pathologist named Mrs. Weeks. I met with her maybe once a week with other kids in elementary school because I had a very pronounced lisp. It was years of speech therapy in elementary school, but she taught me how to use my tongue and my mouth and my lips to pronounce S’s differently from what I was naturally doing. I was the same age as the students you’re working with now. And the teacher’s name was Weeks so I didn’t get her name right. My voice was my main instrument in college and I was trained as a singer. It was a great benefit to me that I could pronounce S’s correctly in order to pursue the arts in the manner in which I did.
Stef: That’s wonderful that speech therapy had such a lasting impact for you. S’s are hard! A lot of my students are working on that sound.
A: I am very grateful and glad I was her student.
S: How did you get into theatre?
A: Well, the old vaudeville joke is there was a door and I walked in. I was a member of a family that was supportive of artistic things. They were supportive of musical things since I demonstrated talent in it as a child. When I was in 10th grade, my school put on a production of The Pajama Game, and I was cast in it. The challenge was this: I grew up in a Jewish family and I went to Hebrew High School twice a week after my public school classes. I attended Hebrew high school through 8th and 9th grade, but in 10th grade it was in conflict with rehearsal for the musical. I asked my parents’ permission to stop in 10th grade so I could be in this production. And they knew it was important to me, and they were supportive of my interest in performing and I stopped attending Hebrew High School that year.
S: You know, it’s funny. I have a very similar story. I didn’t do theatre in high school until 10th grade, and that’s when we have Confirmation. My school had a strict attendance policy and I ended up just missing enough classes due to tech rehearsals that year that I could still be confirmed with my class. And that was it for Hebrew School for me.
I had the pleasure of seeing I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk in Bethesda, and that show has really stayed with me. My favorite lyric comes from the final song sung, and it’s “Befriend Yourself.” I’ve been teaching them to myself and my students ever since. What was it like to write these stories about people becoming who they are?
A: I got to work with Noah Himmelstein, who always whispered to me the notion “you are enough.” I didn’t have to be more than what I was: my voice, my experience and approach and instinct. They’re as valid as anyone else’s in the room—no more or less. That was an important lesson for me. Growing up, I was a kid who always struggled with my weight, and was teased for it. I didn’t get physically bullied, but I bullied myself, which I think we are all capable of. When I’m speaking at universities, I ask the students “How many of you today have had an uncharitable thought about yourself?” I do this to show everyone in that room that we’re all going through something or we’re frightened or feel inadequate in some way. It can be helpful to know that everyone has those thoughts about themselves. (And, by the way, all the hands go up, including the teachers’.) A student working on speaking can have traits that bring up a lot of feelings of being less than perfect. But we all have something we’re dealing with or working on no? This is a process, and it doesn’t go away. We do have to be kind to ourselves. If we were born perfect, what would be the point? How would we grow?
S: And that’s something that we teach now, starting in about third grade. That everyone is different and how wonderful that actually is, and how we can learn from each other instead of envy each other.
A: I think it’s great that you can start a conversation like that with students at such an early age.
S: Many of my students as well as myself have had the pleasure of seeing The Addams Family. Many school productions have been done, and my students were curious if you’d ever seen a student production?
A: Actually, I haven’t. I’ve seen it professionally performed in many countries all over the world, and my mother saw a high school production in Florida, but I haven’t. But getting to see so many audiences all over the world respond to it in so many different languages is phenomenal to experience. It’s been a blessing and it’s always a thrill to see other people do it.
S: I just have to tell you, my mother says not to use Morticia’s toast to Wednesday at the end of the musical lightly, because that curse works, and it is serious business.
A: And that line gets universally received the way your mother understood it. I take it as a compliment.
S: One of your works, and one of my all-time favorites, is The Wild Party. The lyrics in that show are unbelievable. How did the poem influence your creation of that?
A: The Wild Party is not for your students’ age group.
S: It’s not, but I love it.
A: I discovered the poem when I was in my thirties when it was republished with drawings by the great Art Spiegelman. I was not a lyricist at that time. I didn’t have a writing partner to work with when I discovered the poem, and my original intention was to simply set the poem to music. I started writing my own lyrics because there wasn’t much opportunity for the characters to express themselves in terms of “I feel” or “I want.” I called a lifelong friend of mine, Jeffrey Seller, and played him a couple songs over the phone to see what he thought. He asked me who wrote the lyrics and I told him I wrote them and he said, “Just keep going, just write it.” Jeffrey Seller later produced RENT, Avenue Q, and Hamilton in addition to co-producing The Wild Party.
For the most part, writing is a self-starting thing. It takes a long time, and then you have to develop it until it’s at a place where it’s good, and I gathered various partners along the way. The more I wrote, the less poem I used. I wouldn’t actually recommend writing this way—there was no outline, there was no actual plot in mind; I just started writing songs. There are probably as many songs cut from The Wild Party as are in The Wild Party.
S: Did you get the same amount of creative freedom with The Addams Family and Big Fish or were you more confined to the source material for those projects?
A: For The Addams Family, the audience really felt they knew the characters, so our job is to say “We know you know them, here they are, and here’s what they’re going to do that you’ve never seen before.” We initially thought we were being clever by delaying the famous TV theme music – a popular piece of music! – to twenty minutes into the show. We decided to move it to the beginning of the show for the Broadway run. It let the audience feel comfortable so they knew that they’re seeing The Addams Family. It’s like how “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum starts. That song lets the audience know what they’re about to see and the world they’re coming into. And we moved our story from there.
S: And the same was true for Big Fish?
A: The film of Big Fish is beloved and known, but not on the same scale as The Addams Family. We didn’t feel any obligation to stay very true to the film, but it did inspire our work. We kept some of the show similar to the film. The reason you do a musical is because you love the source material. The more you work on that musical, the less you use of the source material. It has to work as a musical, with the source material diminishing over time. It’s an irony of musical-making.
S: I’ve found as a theatre-goer that what I love most about The Addams Family and anything with such a big following are the elements that make them different. To me, the magic of those productions is you only sort of know what you’re in for. However, I get that audiences need to feel the familiar to feel comfortable. In my mind though, if you want to see what you know, watch the movie. If you want to see the new musical, see the musical.
A: There’s truth there. Not everything in the book or movie will work on stage, and it has to work on stage.
S: One of my district-wide goals is collaboration. In an industry like yours, collaboration is key. What would you tell my students about collaboration?
A: The idea is, if everyone has a role, who has the most expertise in that role. In Big Fish, I worked with John August, who also wrote the screenplay. He knew these characters really well. John could tell me why something I had a character doing wasn’t working because he knew how they behaved. This didn’t mean I didn’t give input, but he was connected to the characters in a way that I wasn’t early on in making the musical. I had to trust that he knew more about the circumstances than I did. And in return, he had to trust me on the lyrics and melodies I was using with his depiction of the characters. Trust is a big proponent of collaboration. Most times, as in most cooperative endeavors, what works best is experimenting with ideas. The point isn’t to get your way, it’s not to win, it’s “What can we make as a team that we can’t make as individuals?”
S: Every week I challenge my students and readers to do something outside of their comfort zone. What would challenge them to do?
A: I would say, you cannot change your first thought but you can change your second thought. When you find yourself in conflict with someone—your mother or your teacher or your sibling—can you pause and listen before responding? Actually listen first instead of listening for your turn to speak. Many people only pretend to listen but are actually formulating their response while the other person is talking. Listening is a universal skill that is always useful.
I learned so much from talking with Andrew Lippa, and my students have learned quite a lesson in organizing their writing and working together. This is no small feat with the younger students. What I most enjoy about conversations like these that I’m fortunate enough to have with artists like Andrew Lippa is that they all include such wonderful lessons for myself and my students to take to heart and to practice. I look forward to hearing how my readers do with this challenge as they tackle it themselves.
Keep playing with words and see what your message creates!
–Stef the Stage SLP